What’s productive enough for tenure?

imageA lot hand wringing on the tenure track (and the job hunt) is about publication number and venue. I don’t think I have much more to say on venue (other than I do get the sense that perceptions might be starting to shift), but number is interesting. My operating assumption here is, with apologies to Dobzhansky, Nothing in academic careerism makes sense except in light of local tribal norms. This is why all attempts to have standard metrics (alt* or otherwise) are doomed and ridiculous. The relevant tribes here are your field, department, and university. Look at these tribes, because Twitter and blogs don’t have these answers, and you will go crazy trying to parse and apply the various norms of other tribes in your own context.

I was thinking of this because recently Potnia Theron (who is on a tear of incredibly useful blogging) blogged about someone who was denied tenure in her department. It sounds like “Maria” had deeper issues, but Potnia also points out that she “didn’t publish,” which apparently meant her lab produced 6 papers (4 + 2 soon after submitting her tenure dossier). This sent the familiar surge of icy panic through my veins that wakes me up each morning, until I remembered to look at MY tribes, and that I don’t know Potnia’s field, department, when they go up for tenure, what counts as a paper (I mean, anyone with enough friends can get their name on 6 papers if they really want to), etc.

I work at a well-regarded research university, but I can’t find anyone in my department who went up for tenure with anything close to 6 corresponding author papers. My postdoc supervisor is probably going to sail through at an ILAF with exactly 6. And this is 2 years later than tenure submission time in my current department, where labs tend to be small….size varies from ~3-5 trainees for Assistant Profs once they are up and running (at least a year or two, for peculiar local reasons), usually without a postdoc until substantial external operating grants are obtained, maybe ~3 years in, and often not until after tenure. Sometimes never. So that’s tribe #1, and the most important for my own tenure considerations.

My next tribe is my field and subfield. People close to my field will be on my tenure committee and, I assume, people from my field will be writing letters. I looked at a range of people from the most BSD/glam PIs to the most recently tenured PIs labs I could think of and looked at the number of publications.


This is raw pub # by year. Only final author counts here (if co-first is bullshit, then co-corresponding is bullshit times bullshit to the power of bullshit). In my field, a middle author PI probably mailed someone a plasmid or sent them some of their postdoc’s Matlab code…so that also doesn’t count. Reviews don’t count, obviously. And, perhaps controversially, methods papers don’t count**. 

PI “a” is the most famous person I could think of in my field, and then we go down by career stage. PIs “f”-“h” are in the “recent tenure” category. All of these PIs are at R1/ILAF type places. I then looked at current trainee number. BSD “c” has over twenty postdocs and graduate students. Senior PI “b”—a department chair—has four. Assuming approximate lab size stability over the period of study, we can calculate papers per trainee-year… that is, the annual productivity per trainee for each PI. I gave them a major break by NOT counting technicians or the occasional masters student.


Tailing off on the junior side might be expected, as the time frame in question includes a lot of their pre-tenure “starting up” time and periods when their labs were likely smaller. Also of note: counter to my own assumption about BSD postdoc factories, PI “c” has both the largest lab and the highest per-trainee productivity.

Putting this in my personal context… my first year I will have a trainee for half a year (0.5 trainee-years). I plan to add 2 in my second year, and one per year after that. This would be ambitious growth for my department. So, when I submit my tenure file (after year 5), I’ll have had 17.5 trainee-years of labor in total (but much less money than any of the people in my analysis). That gives a range of 1.2 papers to 4.6 papers according to the productivity rates above, with anything above ~3.5 papers being at the level of the top labs in my field over a similar time period.

So, what is most important is to know what standards will be applied to YOU rather than to worry about the details of the standards you hear from others. This has nothing to do with being a snowflake or your field being harder or whatever. Undoubtedly, there IS variation in fields about what is considered sufficient for a paper, what “counts” in authorship or venue, etc, but that’s not really the point here either. The point is finding out the specific situation you are in, analyzing it carefully and, when appropriate, quantitatively, and making sure you are judging (and berating) yourself by the right criteria. Of course, none of this is as important as regularly talking to your chair and teh oldz about expectations.

Finally, I know this is beggars-n-choosers for people on the job market, but even at ILAFs there are supportive departments where they expect and want all hires to get tenure (and—surprise!—almost all do), and there are departments where they use tenure as a carrot to grind you out, because only half or two-thirds of people will get tenure. My personal opinion is that the latter places are inherently toxic and fucked, and I wouldn’t want to work in one any more than I’d sign up for a redo of the Stanford Prison Experiment.


* I won’t even link to it, but anyone else see the 2013 Altmetrics Top 100 thing? Yeah, so altmetrics apparently equals clickbaitishness. Woopdeefuckendoo.

** I only say methods/tools papers don’t count because they are often a route to getting an “easy” pub when you can’t get the data. I know, I’ve done it. Also: fuck BRAINI and “optogenetics also works in this brain area/organism/zip code.” Anyway, no labs I’m looking at here are principally methodology labs.


7 Comments on “What’s productive enough for tenure?”

  1. rxnm says:

    I just looked it up and we actually submit for tenure near the start of our fifth year. So, that just freaked me out.

  2. Bill says:

    I’m so glad to see the acronym ILAF alive and well on the internets.

  3. Reblogged this on jbrittholbrook and commented:
    Although I do think it’s got something to do with being a snowflake (http://jbrittholbrook.com/2013/06/21/snowflake-indicators-postmodern-research-evaluation-part-5-of/), I also see some food for thought and wisdom in this post (which I found on Twitter courtesy of @egonwillighagen).

  4. rxnm says:

    Is that yours, Bill?

  5. Bill says:

    “ILAF” was invented during a conversation between myself and DrugMonkey; I think perhaps I came up with it, but I am happy to share credit since it would never have survived beyond Twitter without DM. 🙂

  6. anniebio says:

    Please for the love of goodness, could someone define ILAF and BSD?

  7. Newbie PI says:

    Reviews certainly count towards tenure decisions. Maybe they don’t demonstrate research productivity, but a high-impact invited review demonstrates national reputation, which is a major component of my university’s tenure evaluation.

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